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What Do We Want in the Candidate's Wife? How a First Lady Should Look and Act

He May Be Running, But She's Scrutinized, Burdened by Expectations & Criticism

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Updated September 29, 2012
Our parents used to elect leaders whom they respected and looked up to. Today we elect individuals we can see ourselves having a beer with. Nowhere has this shift in attitude been more apparent than in the U.S. presidential elections of the past two decades. We want to elect a nice guy, someone who understands our pain. We don't want an intellectual egghead, a stuffed shirt, or someone who can't loosen up and have fun.

Oddly enough, these casual and relaxed expectations do not extend to the candidate's spouse. When it comes to political wives, we continue to hold onto essentially the same expectations our parents and grandparents had, especially when the spouse has the potential of becoming the next First Lady. Every ingrained belief regarding the traditional role of women comes to the surface when we analyze the female standing at the side of what may be the next President of the United States.

"Acts Like...Looks Like a First Lady"
One striking example of this was caught on tape by NPR reporter Ari Shapiro. While covering Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's appearance at an American Legion conference in Indianapolis in August 2012, Shapiro asked Bobbi Lussier, a retiree from Manassas, Virginia, for her opinion on President Obama. Her reply glanced over him and zeroed in on Michelle: "I don't like him. Can't stand to look at him. I don't like his wife. She's far from the first lady. It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady, and looks like a first lady."

After hearing from listeners angered by what they perceived as racially-tinged comments, Shapiro spoke again with Lussier who explained further: "She doesn't look or act [like a First Lady]....can you imagine you know, Kennedys or the Bushes or anybody doing pushups on the floor?...she's more about showing her arms off....very inappropriate for a lot of functions that she goes to....It's respect....for being in the White House....You see her walking around in shorts... casual wear....when I go to functions I kind of dress up...but you just gotta look the part."

What exactly is that "part" Lussier alludes to? What do we expect from a candidate's wife or First Lady in terms of her actions, behavior, appearance and demeanor?

Stereotypes Rooted in the Past
If you base your assessment on news stories and in-depth magazine profiles that attract the most attention along with appearances by the candidates' wives on talk shows and the campaign trail, the truth can be a bit hard to swallow. While over half the workforce is female and reports indicate that young unmarried women in the nation's largest cities make as much as or more than their male peers, these advances have had little impact on our cultural expectations of how a First Lady should act and look. What we want is still firmly rooted in those stereotypes of the past. Our ideal First Lady remains untainted by the psychedelic 60s or the women's movement of the 70s. She's still stuck in the 1950s, sixty years out of sync.

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The following 10 qualities are what we seem to prefer in a candidate's spouse or First Lady judging from how we're packaging political wives these days.

To be a successful political partner, a woman must:

1. Serve as a Supportive Helpmate

While it's up to the candidate and his political advisors to decide how soon to introduce the wife, have her assume a larger role in the campaign, and determine the frequency of her appearances, speeches, and media interviews, the good political wife is always available and always at their beck and call. Wives who score extra points are younger than their mates (Cindy McCain) and much more attractive (Jeri Thompson, wife of Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson), or busy moms juggling many more children than the average soccer mom.

Spouses of politicians who refuse to give up their own lives and careers are a liability. At best they are seen as odd and uncooperative (Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of presidential candidate John Kerry and heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune) and at worst unsupportive of their husbands and egotistical for insisting on maintaining their own lives. In 2004, Judith Steinberg Dean, a warm and unassuming Vermont physician who didn't want to abandon her patients and sit on the campaign bus with her husband, presidential hopeful Howard Dean, was often accused of falling into the latter category. To avoid this same pitfall, Michelle Obama (who'd served as a university hospital vice president when her husband announced his presidential campaign) reduced her hours by 80% in May 2007 to reconfigure her life and become more of the supportive helpmate.

2. Tell Her Husband's Story

It's now a given that at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the presumptive nominee's spouse will address the crowds and provide stirring testimony of their lives together while humanizing him in a deeply personal way that only a wife is capable of.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, writer Rebecca Traister noted that the candidate's wife "feeds a national appetite for personal narrative" which has become "the way of the world in a story and personality-driven political marketplace" -- a marketplace that came into existence with the advent of televised political events. Jamie Stiehm, a columnist for Creators Syndicate, sees this as an outgrowth of past stereotypes "when men were presumed to be strong and silent." While men are now able to speak for themselves, she observes, "Culturally, we still rely on wives to warm up the men in the room and to illuminate their other halves," yet even Stiehm acknowledges, "Of course, political wives are not expected to be honest brokers; they are more like character witnesses."

3. Assume the Traditional Feminine Role

Although many individuals who enter into politics are married to spouses as equally driven and dedicated as they themselves are, the majority of those who aspire to higher levels likely expect that their wives' careers will at some point be put aside in service to the greater goal -- getting the husband elected. Having a working spouse makes campaigning that much harder, especially when there are children still living at home.

The political wife often serves as an extension of the candidate and her own popularity may add to the candidate's appeal as it did in Obama's 2008 run. However, every political spouse is reframed and remade to fit the mold.

When Michelle Obama was perceived as an angry black woman in the early months of her husband's campaign, her image was softened and an appearance on ABC's The View was an attempt to reposition her in a traditional female role as a wife just dishing on her husband.

4. Never Put Herself Forward as One Half of a "Two-fer"

When Bill Clinton first ran for president, his campaign theme song "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac suggested a new approach to leadership and the presidency, and this bold view included his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill never attempted to hide his wife's strengths, abilities, or intellectual curiosity. Instead, he often jokingly suggested that a vote for him was a two-for-one deal because the nation would get Hillary as well. As progressive-minded as this idea was, it backfired badly when Hillary became embroiled in a failed attempt at healthcare reform. Her involvement was held up as an example of the kind of havoc a meddling, overreaching First Lady could wreak, and no spouse since then has sought a larger role for herself.

Although Hillary subsequently proved herself as the junior Senator from New York and as Secretary of State, those were positions she earned through election or appointment. The public remains resistant to the idea of a First Lady who attempts too much, appears too bold, or tries to pass herself off as her husband's equal in power and influence. The nation elects a President and the First Lady is an additional benefit, not a two-for-one deal.

5. Emphasize Her Importance as Wife, Mother

Many women looked forward to Michelle Obama assuming the role of First Lady under the assumption that she'd become a champion for working mothers everywhere. Why wouldn' she, since she knew firsthand the challenges of juggling family and career? However, Michelle proclaimed herself "mom-in-chief" and chose support of military families as her main focus -- a far less controversial issue. Considering how her image had evolved, it was understandable.

The idea that working women care as much about their careers as they do their husbands and children is subtly threatening to the concept of "family values." Women who self-identify as wives and mothers first are not divided by the push-pull of the workplace.

In Rebecca Traister's September 2012 op-ed in the NY Times , she wrote that her disappointment with Michelle Obama goes back to 2008 when the candidate's wife "gave a speech in which she all but erased herself" in an attempt to soften her image and "to reassure listeners that...she was a mother, a wife, a daughter and a sister." While Traister has every right to be disappointed, the reality is that political pressure wouldn't have allowed Michelle Obama to behave otherwise. A strong black woman would have been a liability. Instead, the adoring wife and loving mother she recast herself as became a significant asset.

6. Appear Warm, Friendly and Approachable

When Ann Romney stood before the Republican National Convention in August 2012, she came burdened by specific concerns about her lifestyle. There were the expenses associated with her hobby -- dressage -- and her limited understanding of the hardships the average woman endured. After all, Ann lived a life of privilege and had never worked outside the home earning a paycheck.

Yet she laid those concerns to rest with her simple story about meeting a boy at a school dance and falling in love with him, anecdotes about the craziness of keeping a houseful of boys under control on a rainy day, and the fact that a so-called "storybook" marriage could include life-threatening health conditions. Ann Romney hit every note she needed to hit, and by appearing warm, friendly and approachable, she got the women at the RNC on their feet, cheering for her and crying over her moving account.

7. Maintain Her Dignity

Ari Shapiro's interview with retiree Bobbie Lussier touched upon a sensitive nerve in American politics that exists even in this uncivil age. The President holds an exalted position that's as close to the British monarchy as we will ever get; so it's natural that we look to the President for a level of pomp and circumstance that exists nowhere else. Though we may imagine ourselves having a beer with him, we also expect an appropriate level of dignity and formality from the First Family when it's called for.

While Michelle Obama isn't exactly behaving like a drill sergeant barking, "Drop and give me 20!" her sleeveless dresses, muscular arms and obvious physical strength run counter to the images of other iconic First Ladies: Jackie Kennedy with her demure pillbox hat, petite and pert Nancy Reagan, everybody's grandmother Barbara Bush, and gracious librarian Laura Bush.

While the role of First Lady isn't locked into the Eleanor Roosevelt/Mamie Eisenhower mold, any First Lady who pushes the envelope is bound to inflame a few sensibilities. For a generation that sees uncovered arms as scandalous, that could be taken as a affront to dignity. While Michelle has made bare arms in the White House commonplace, few candidates's wives would risk it on the campaign trail as it's still seen as informal unless you're wearing a ball gown at a formal affair.

8. Be Modest in Dress and Behavior

On a related note, none of us wants a First Lady who looks and dresses like Pamela Anderson on Dancing with the Stars. Ex-model/pop star First Ladies like Carla Bruni may be all right in France, but despite our global reputation as a casual nation populated by cowboys and surfers, our sense of what's proper for the president's wife is more rooted in our Puritan heritage. While those in the know noted that Jackie Kennedy and her staff often wore sleeveless outfits, arms disappeared for the next four decades; Michelle is simply re-introducing us to the idea of a young, physically fit First Lady. However, shorts, short skirts, plunging necklines, cleavage, and "more sexy than Mommy" are still taboo, and any behavior or style of dress -- from gym rat to cougar -- that you couldn't picture your grandmother doing or wearing remains problematic for a First Lady if she wants to avoid criticism.

9. Practice Philanthropy and Charity

Until we decide to pay the First Lady and develop a job description that plays to her skills and abilities, the duties she assumes will be more for show and ceremony than actual substance. Yet that isn't a remark belittling her role. Far from it. The First Lady traditionally leads the nation as the Volunteer-in-Chief, choosing several pet causes to focus on and highlighting one that becomes her signature (Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No to Drugs" and Barbara Bush's support of adult literacy initiatives are just two.) Michelle Obama's interest in overall health and wellness, reducing childhood obesity and encouraging kids to eat better, are all examples of personal passion translated into philanthropy. Although we expect this from our First Ladies, we also want to see candidates' spouses demonstrate a track record of charitable works and philanthropic pursuits.

10. Give Up Her Life to Fulfill Her Husband's Political Destiny

Standing beside every President in the White House is a First Lady who ended her career for him. For some, it would not have been their ideal choice and for others, the decision was made years earlier when their husbands' political aspirations first took root.

Michelle Obama was resistant to her husband's foray into politics, quickly realizing that he would not be the kind of father she grew up -- a father who was at home and an active participant in his children's lives -- and that she'd have to pick up the slack. Laura Bush stopped working as a librarian to help her husband George W. Bush with his 1978 Congressional campaign. While Hillary Clinton was able to maintain her law practice throughout her husband's tenure as as Governor of Arkansas, she had to give it up after Bill Clinton was elected. She was, however, the first First Lady to continue her career until she moved into the White House.

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While these 10 characteristics have helped many a candidate's wife realize her husband's Oval Office aspirations, all bets will be off when the candidate's spouse is a man. When the First Family finally includes a First Gentleman, at long last we'll be able to consign these outmoded ideas to the scrap heap of history -- which is exactly where they belong.

Sources:

Shapiro, Ari. "A Second, Chance Interview with Subject of Controversial First Lady Remarks." NPR.org. 27 September 2012.
Shapiro, Ari. "Romney Courts Vets at American Legion Convention." NPR.org. 30 August 2012.
Stiehm, Jamie. "Do We Need to Hear From the Candidate's Spouse? For Better or Worse, Politics is Show Business." NYTimes.com. 5 September 2012.
Traiser, Rebecca. "Do We Need to Hear From the Candidate's Spouse? It Depends on the Candidate and the Partnership." NYTimes. com. 7 September 2012.
Traister, Rebecca. "Stand By Your Man '04." Salon.com. 23 January 2004.

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